Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Raggedy man

One day when my granddaughter was eight or nine, we went Christmas shopping together. As we waited in a long line of cars to turn left under an overpass, we saw a homeless man holding up a cardboard sign at the end of the block. He was tall and big-boned with a Raggedy-Andy-length mop of tangled red hair. His dirty black trench coat had no buttons, and there were no strings to tie his weathered work boots.

As we sat in traffic, I tried to decide whether to give the man some money. I've developed a set of vague guidelines about that kind of thing over the years. The first question is always whether or not I can afford it. If I'm on my way to spend money for something other than basic necessities, I figure I can spare a little extra for someone else. The second issue is whether I can hand money to a stranger without putting myself in danger from him or from the surrounding traffic. The third factor, the argument I have with my cynical side every time the issue arises, is whether I'll be helping someone in need or encouraging a con artist. That argument usually ends the same way: I'd rather err on the side of kindness and let God sort out the other person's intentions.

On this particular occasion, all three criteria having been met, I decided I'd give the man enough money for a fast-food meal as soon as I got close enough to him. I pulled a five-dollar bill out of my purse (which was enough back then), tucked the purse between my hip and the car door, and waited for the light to change so we could move closer to the corner. We moved, but not far. I watched for the man to look in our direction, and when he did, I held the money up to the windshield and waved it to signal him. He quickly started walking toward us.

Just as the man stopped beside the car, I remembered that my car window mechanism had broken earlier in the week. The window wouldn't roll down. I had a fleeting moment of panic at the idea of opening the car door to a stranger when my granddaughter was with me, then I realized there was no possible way he could carjack us in traffic that was barely moving.

I opened the door and handed the money to the man. He smiled, gave his shaggy head a nod, said, "Thank you and God bless you," then turned away and walked back to the corner. The traffic light turned green, and we moved up only two or three places before it changed to red and brought us to a stop again.

After a moment, the man glanced back in our direction. He suddenly began waving his arms--big, frantic motions--and pointing behind us. His mouth was moving, but with the window up, I couldn't understand him. He started moving toward us again, first walking fast, taking big steps, then breaking into a run. Once again he stopped beside my car. His urgent demeanor made me nervous, but I opened the door enough to hear him. "Your bag," he said, breathing hard from the exertion. "Your bag fell out of your car."

I looked behind me and saw my purse lying at the edge of the road, back where I'd been when I gave him the money. There was Christmas-shopping cash in the purse, money I'm sure he could have used. Credit cards, too. A dishonest man would have recognized the opportunity, kept his mouth shut, and thanked his lucky stars. Not this man, though. I retrieved my purse and it was my turn to thank him. This time, his smile was even broader.

Every year since then, when I'm Christmas shopping, I think about that man. Thousands of people must have been shopping that day, but I can't imagine that anyone else got a better bargain than I did. Who knew it was possible to have one's faith in human nature restored for a mere five bucks?

18 comments:

  1. Velvet, what a great story! This is something I'd remember every year, too! I have to go through the same mental exercise you do when I see someone panhandling, and usually my end decision is the same as yours. But I've never had a great experience like this. Thanks for sharing this story - I'll remember it next time I see someone in need.

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  2. The perfect Christmas story to guide us all as we walk and drive past people who are in need.

    Thanks, Velvet.

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  3. Your kindness was rewarded with kindness. I love it. What a beautiful Christmas story :-)

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  4. I have the same thoughts as I see these people on the corners but around here most are drug addicts looking for a cheap rock or alcoholics and have crack pipes or empty wine bottles hidden in their clothes. I can never pass up the Salvation Army buckets that sit outside every grocery store. Sometimes it so cold and windy but these volunteers stand there ringing there bells. I leave something in every bucket because I know if the people on the corners really want some food or a place to stay the Salvation Army will take care of them. I admire your trust in people and this time your heart must of been full thinking about the goodness of man. You were lucky and perhaps your second sense knew that this was an honest person in need. Unfortunately, not all homeless people are as harmless or as honest.

    Noel

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  5. Perfect Christmas story. My grandfather used to feed anyone who came to his door. "You don't know which ones are angels" he'd say. I think you found one of grandpas "angels in disguise" Velvet.

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  6. Oh, course this reminds me of the song, about Jesus coming to visit and the 3 who came.

    Velvet, I must say that usually I do not give money to those beside the road. I am glad some still have the faith!

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  7. Lovely story Velvet. Happy Holidays to you! Holly

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  8. Thank you for sharing such a lovely memory Velvet, at this time of year especially. Makes me think of a proverb; "Give a little of your heart and you shall be rewarded ten fold."

    It's not always easy, as you say, to do the right thing but such accounts restore my faith in people.
    Have a wonderful Christmas Velvet.

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  9. thank you for sharing that. when our kindness is sent right back to us like yours was it can really help see that there is inherent good in people, if only more people were as good as that man.

    Merry Christmas

    john w and keepers

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  10. Living in AZ we have a lot of people on the corners in the winter because it is warmer here and easier to live outside. My Daddy always said if you gave someone money and they did something to harm themselves, like buy booze, you were partly to blame for their problems.... I often give money to people on street corners but I am not caring enough to go buy them clothes or food...and turn around and take it back to them. That is just too much trouble for me I guess...I'm sure if my Dad was going to give to them he would take the time to do that...

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  11. Wonderful story...hope you and your family are all getting ready for a happy holiday! Carmon

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  12. Have a lovely holiday, Velvet, take lots of pictures and thank you for all your wonderful stories this year.

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  13. What a wonderful story Velvet. In the world in which we live, it's so easy to think negatively about everyone. It's true that kindness is repaid tenfold, and this man is proof of that. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

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  14. Thank you for this story. As you know I have way too much experience with homelessness. The kindness you showed is appreciated by all who have experienced this.

    For those who wonder if they should give to this or that person here are some items that you can donate to the homeless in place of giving cash:
    fresh fruit (high sugar ones like ripe bananas or oranges)
    clean socks
    feminine hygiene for women
    Kleenex or restroom tissue
    bottled water (they can get coffee anywhere)
    If you can not give anything at all in the form of material please at least give the courtesy of eye contact. Acknowledge them. It means everything. Even if you say no you can't offer anything eye contact does make a difference.

    Thank you again,

    Austin

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  15. I'm way too late to respond individually to the thoughts and ideas all of you have posted here, but I appreciate each and every comment.

    I also have to acknowledge Austin, specifically, for sharing a unique perspective on this story and for some excellent suggestions about how we can help in ways that might not have occurred to us. Thanks!

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